Sunday, 17 March 2013


As NATO’s commitment to Afghanistan winds down, the Westminster Government is aiming to fund a £10 million pound programme to help Afghanistan exploit its huge natural resources. This may sound too many people like a lot of money but considering that estimates of what lies underground in Afghanistan range from some $1 – 3 trillion dollars (US) worth of gold, gems, iron ore, and oil and gas. Now this has little to do with largess, no doubt hoping for a percentage, David Cameron’s three-year funding programme, to support the Afghan Ministry of Mines was launched at an event at Downing Street (March 6th).

UK Mining Aid in Afghanistan: Throwing Good Money After Bad?
The announcement came as Mr Cameron hosted dozens of UK investors and mining contractors at Downing Street.  He said the UK had already played "a huge and honourable role" in stabilising Afghanistan, but that the country needed "prosperity, growth, jobs, investment and wealth". British mining companies welcomed the announcement. Cameron’s decision could be described as courageous, especially with the claims that the award of mining contracts in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban were directly affected by corruption.

Transparency International in 2012 Corruption Index (CPI) currently ranks Afghanistan as one of the (joint) most corrupt country with North Korea and Somalia. President Hamid Karzai in the United State for the NATO Summit in Chicago (in 2012) was asked by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer about this rampant corruption issue in Afghanistan. As usual, President Karzai’s answer was “it is the contractual mechanism that the US applies in Afghanistan” that encourages bribery, fraud, and corruption.

The Afghan President has always blamed the west for the loss of billions of aid dollars and the rise of corruption in Afghanistan. The reality is less simple as on a daily basis, ordinary Afghans are less concerned about the kinds of bribery that is (and does) occur when the US and Western  development agencies hand out big development contracts. Ordinary Afghans are more infuriated by the kinds of bribes that they often have to give to get what they are legally entitled to via “harassment bribes.”

Basically harassment bribes are like when a retired Afghan has to pay some cash to the pension officer to receive his retirement check. Or, when a young man or woman freshly graduated from college has to get his or her paperwork done in order to become a teacher. To accomplish this the prospective teacher will be asked to pay a hefty bribe. Or your Tazkira or national ID card is held up until you pay some cash to the officer in charge. These are all simple illustration of harassment bribes.

Harassment bribery is widespread in Afghanistan, and it plays a large role in breeding inefficiency and has a profoundly destructive effect on civil society. While President Karzai consistently wags the finger at the West for widespread corruption in Afghanistan, yet his administration has failed to take responsibility for banishing bribery on the lower level. The West has for a quiet life has looked the other way as local low level corruption tends to be written off as a fact of life something that indirectly may feed support for the Taliban.

Now it may be a question of scale, the World Bank has regularly appealed for future Afghan mining concessions to be better regulated and more transparent, and the UK’s new financial support is aimed at improving that process. Cameron’s theory is that by improving Afghan technical competence, and ensuring a transparent process, should help to secure that along with the concerns that vast investments made by companies from China and India have reduced  opportunities for others i.e. The UK.

When it comes to mining contracts it certainly appears to be a matter of scale. The award of a 30-year contract to a Chinese consortium to exploit the Mes Aynak copper mine in Logar province is one of the deals that has come in for particular criticism. The exact details of 2007 deal with China Metallurgical Group Corporation have never been made public, something that continues to fuel rumours of bribery and kick-backs along with serious concerns about the potentially massive environmental and cultural impact of the mining project on local communities and local people.

Some years ago, the Taliban blew up Afghanistan's ancient Buddha's of Bamiyan, provoking a degree of international outrage amongst the concerned and amongst the chattering classes. At the time the Taliban's brutal treatment of women and religious minorities oddly enough provoked less public outrage - no doubt because pipeline route deals (to get the oil out of Central Asia) were in the offing. Now, the country's rich archaeological heritage is facing a new and different threat - that of mineral exploitation and development of resources.

The Peoples Republic of China (currently busy sourcing minerals and foodstuffs from around the world to feed its economy and its people) has its sights on another ancient Buddhist site in pursuit of copper. Mes Aynak ironically is an ex al-Qaeda training camp and home to a 1,400 years old Buddhist monastery. This site is relatively intact with walls, corridors, stupas brightly painted red Buddha's. The monks originally settled here because there was copper in the ground; part of a Buddhist kingdom and a Silk Road way-station, other things carried Buddhism from India to Tibet, and into China.

The China Metallurgical Group (MGC) has a 30-year lease to mine copper to develop a copper mine. The mine alone could give Afghanistan $1.2 billion (£755 million) per year in revenue along with much needed jobs. Chinese miners have set up camp and special armed security guards patrol miles of fencing around the site. Beneath the site lies the world's second-largest untapped copper reserve, and the Chinese have bought the mineral rights to the entire area.

The archaeological site was discovered during excavation of the site for MGC - archaeologists have three years to salvage the site, which could easily take 10 years to properly excavate. Afghan archaeologists are aware of what has been lost in thirty years of war, and have deep concerns that a lot of their cultural heritage has been destroyed, damaged and looted. Their concerns stretch well beyond Afghanistan as they perceive the artefact's as not just belong to their country, but as human treasure which belongs to all of us.

Overwhelmed by both large and small scale corruption what can an endemically corrupt Afghan government do to discourage bribe givers and takers (at all levels of government) even if it wanted to? Endemic corruption aside the security situation is the key, with NATO leaving and the Taliban waiting in the wings things don’t look good.

Yet if things stabilise then there may be new rush to exploit Afghan mining opportunities, but, at what cost to the Afghans themselves, who have seen what has happened in other post-conflict countries. Elsewhere in the world, in Africa and elsewhere, large deposits of mineral resources have often proved to be a curse, often enriching the few (and the mining companies) rather than benefiting local people who have often lost out.

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